I was privileged to have been invited last August 18 and August 25, 2011 to the Commission on Electionto be a resource person in the organizational meeting of the group  tasked to implement the plan to improve the institution’s capacity to adjudicate election disputes.  Also invited on both dates was my colleague in Libertas, Atty. Vince Yambao.

Vince and I were asked to discuss in the August 18 meeting the findings of Libertas’ Baseline Study on the State of Election Adjudication in the Philippines published in 2008 to help provide a framework for the work and activities of the group. Vince was the head writer of the study and I was the election law consultant.

In attendance were Commissioners Lucenito Tagle and Christian Robert Lim, and about 20 COMELEC lawyers involved in adjudicating election cases. I started with presenting to the group some internationally accepted standards that are used to assess the sufficiency of a country’s election adjudication system. Vince, on the other hand, made reference to the findings and results of the Baseline Study in pointing out some areas in the rules of procedures that can be improved on.

As the free wheeling discussion went on, the circuitous process by which election offenses are being resolved was put in the agenda. Thus, recommendations like delegating to the Regional Election Director the authority to decide on a Preliminary Investigation, without the case having to reach the Commission En Banc, were forwarded. The intention is to remedy the situation where the Commissioners are deluged with hundreds of election offenses cases to resolved, among the  protest cases that they are expected to finish in timely manner. The procedure before the Provincial and City Prosecutors in ordinary criminal cases was cited as a model that COMELEC can follow.

It was also suggested, as an alternative, that instead of the Commissioners having to write their ponencia in every preliminary investigation case that they decide, the Commission en banc can just resolved, in a Minute Resolution, to approve or disapprove the recommendations and draft resolutions of the investigating prosecutors.

Later, I proposed that filing of Petitions for accreditation and registration of political parties and party list groups be given a deadline of one year before election. The idea is to free COMELEC from processing these kinds of petitions a few months before election day, thus giving the poll body more time  to manage and run the election better. Parties and Party list groups are anyway required to be already in existence way before election they hope to participate in.

August 18 Meeting in COMELEC for Election Adjudication Reform

As the discussion was going on, Chairman Brillantes arrived in a bright yellow vest and heartily participated in the discussion. The Chair and the commissioners huddled every time a proposal is raised. They appeared to be in agreement with most of the suggestions put on the table. They even thought that the deadline for the Petitions for accreditation be set earlier, like 18 months before elections, rather than one year.

At the end of the August 18 meeting, it was decided that the group meet again, with Chairman Brillantes directing the organizer to make sure that he is invited the next time. (It was explained to him that only Commissioners Tagle and Lim were invited because they are the identified “champions” of the group)

The next meeting came yesterday August 25, and this time around election lawyers George Erwin Garcia and Romulo Makalintal were invited. Chair Brillantes came on time, Commissioner Lagman also attended with Commissioners Tagle and Lim. Atty. Garcia offered comprehensive suggestions on possible amendment of the vintage 1993 COMELEC Rules of Procedures, which. as  he pointed out, even contained provisions that were already declared invalid by the Supreme Court. Atty. Makalintal, for his part, proposed that COMELEC should filter out unmeritorious cases at the outset to free the poll body of nuisance election suits.

Election Adjudication Reform Meeting

Following some of the basic issues raised by Atty. Garcia, I suggested that COMELEC can start reform by identifying matters which are basically administrative in nature and distinguish them from those that are quasi-judicial. This is to help the institution clarify for itself how it should handle matters that are brought before it. Vince cited the case of Baytan vs. Comelec which made a distinction between the administrative and quasi-judicial function of COMELEC, as a possible guide. A fiery and animated, but civil, arguments ensued among the Commissioners and senior lawyers about the matter. A lot of other issues came out, which likewise generated passionate but healthy exchanges.

For his part ommissioner Lagman cited the need to use electronic case management system in improving the docket management of COMELEC cases. He also proposed the idea of allowing electronic filing of pleadings.

In the end, it was resolved that a draft Rules of Procedure be made in time for the next meeting. Participants were asked to forward their proposals.